Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Palestinian militant group Hamas on Wednesday of a “lethal” reaction to any renewed Palestinian violence on the Gaza border, after blocking aid to the strip in response to the wounding of a soldier there. Weeks of relative calm in the Gaza Strip ended Tuesday when Israeli soldiers were fired on along the border with the enclave in two separate incidents. An officer was lightly wounded when a bullet hit his helmet.
In response Israeli tanks struck two Hamas positions in Gaza, killing one militant, while overnight Israeli warplanes struck what the army said was a Hamas military camp in northern Gaza.
Netanyahu responded by blocking $15 million of Qatari aid that was expected to be transferred to Gaza, and told Israeli soldiers he would respond with force to any further hostilities.
“Maybe there is someone in Gaza who thinks he can stick his head up; I suggest that they understand that the response will be lethal and very painful. We are ready for any scenario and escalation,” Netanyahu said at a military exercise in southern Israel, quoted by his office.
Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since 2008 and fears of a fourth round remain. However, violence has abated since November as a result of an informal truce between the parties. Under that agreement; Israel has permitted Gulf state Qatar, a Hamas ally, to bring in aid to the strip including $15 million a month to pay salaries of Hamas civil servants and assist impoverished residents.
The January payment had been expected to enter Gaza on Wednesday or Thursday, but Netanyahu blocked it after the flare-up, an Israeli official confirmed. This is the first time that Israel has admitted to obstructing the transfer, which was already delayed by two weeks. The payment would be the third of six planned tranches, totalling $90 million, in connection with the truce. Israel’s permission is required since the money must be delivered via its territory.
Hamas is labelled a terrorist organisation by the United States and the European Union, and banks are hesitant to make the transfer.
At the funeral of the Hamas fighter Wednesday, mourners called for revenge as the body was accompanied by members of Hamas’s military wing.
Israel maintains a crippling blockade of the Gaza Strip, the cramped territory wedged between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean. The Jewish state says it is necessary to isolate Hamas, but critics say it amounts to collective punishment of the enclave’s two million residents.
The Qatari payments are controversial in Israel, where they have sparked opposition from right-wing activists and politicians. In November Israel’s defence minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned after accusing Netanyahu of being soft on Hamas following a flare-up.
The right-wing premier is running for a fifth term in April 9 elections, having long portrayed himself as “Mr Security” to Israelis. Widely shared images of suitcases of cash being sent into Gaza through Israel could prove awkward for Netanyahu. The father of Hadar Goldin, an Israeli soldier killed in the 2014 Gaza war and whose body Hamas is still believed to hold, told army radio Tuesday he believes the funds are ultimately going to Hamas.
“That’s what happens when you capitulate to terrorism,” Simha Goldin said.
Gaza has seen weekly Hamas-backed demonstrations along the border since March 2018, with demonstrators calling for Palestinian refugees in Gaza to be able to return to their former lands now inside Israel. Israel accuses Hamas of using the protests as cover to carry out violence.
At least 244 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since March, mostly during border clashes but also by tank fire and air strikes. Two Israeli soldiers have been killed.
Hamas said in a statement it “never accepts shedding the blood of the Palestinian people to fuel the Israeli elections advertising.”
United Nations envoy Nickolay Mladenov warned Tuesday that living conditions in Gaza remained desperate and the risk of new conflict was high.
“There is no status quo; there is only a deterioration that, if left unchecked, without a vision and the political will for peace, can only lead to endless conflict,” he told the UN Security Council.